Music Interviews

Swans’ Michael Gira: “You have to follow the thread of what keeps your imagination invigorated” – Interview

Emerging in early ’80s New York from the same fertile earth as the likes of Sonic Youth, Lydia Lunch, The Contortions and Glenn Branca (the so-called ‘No Wave’ scene), Swans always stood somewhat apart.

The brainchild of ferociously driven polymath Michael Gira, early Swans gigs embodied all the aggression, volume and darkness of punk and hardcore, but with a timeless, almost pagan intensity. Gira’s lyrics on albums like Filth and Cop stripped post-punk nihilism to an unheard-of simplicity and brutality, his voice an animal’s guttural growl, the music a solid wall of grinding guitar and thunderous percussion which ruthlessly extinguished any trace of melody, warmth or humanity. Not for Swans the relative comfort of pop-culture references or catchy tunes, their music burrowed into the listener like an aggressive infection, and left pieces of itself in the psyche long after the last drum beat had echoed into silence.

As line-ups shifted, so did the music. Collaborators like Gira’s erstwhile partner Jarboe helped guide Swans to a less overtly harsh (if no less intense) sonic space, encompassing acoustic guitar and a more conventional, singer-songwriter-like modus operandi. By the time of Swans’ planned demise in the late 1990s, Gira had all but become a folk musician and his next outfit The Angels Of Light continued this exploration into the darker side of acoustic instrumentation.

An artist who perpetually seems unwilling to repeat himself, Gira has surprised many by releasing a new album (the startling, epic My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky) under the name Swans. With many former Swans contributing to the album (including original guitarist Norman Westberg), and an overall return to the multi-layered wall of noise production methods of the early days, the obvious first question would be why has he resurrected Swans again at this point in his career?

The voice is as chilling, sonorous and ocean-deep as it ever was, even coming through a tiny mobile phone speaker. “Well I don’t really look on it as a ‘resurrection’. I’m just taking the idea that I want to carry forward of Swans and involving people that I want to work with who were in Swans. Not that it’s a reunion necessarily. I’ve been making music under the name Angels Of Light for about 12 or 13 years I guess, and that was a more acoustic-oriented project wherein I’d record songs on acoustic guitar and then think about orchestrating them with strings, vibes, vocals, organs, and it was a much more gentle (or seemingly gentle) project. And I just started to think in the last couple of years that I wanted to be involved in something that was a bit more physical, overwhelming, sonically ecstatic. So inevitably I came to the conclusion that I wanted to make music under the name Swans again. To me it’s not about going back, it’s a way of moving forward.” Does he think that the new album is more challenging than his other recent work? “At this juncture, yeah. You have to follow the thread of what keeps your imagination invigorated, otherwise you’re no good to anybody. That’s what I’ve done.”

So it would seem then that Swans are more about The Sound, the overall sonic attack. At the height of their ‘noise’ era they regularly topped gleefully-compiled lists of ‘Loudest Bands In The World’, and Gira has bristled in the past at the suggestion that volume and aggression were ends in themselves. With that in mind, are Swans generally more aggressive than his other projects? “Not more aggressive. I’d say more overwhelming. ‘Aggressive’ implies that I might have a beef with someone in the audience or something. I just want to make music that sounds like 10 orchestras playing different pieces of music at the same time,” he laughs, “just a whirlwind of sound that lifts you up to heaven, that’s basically what I want. There’s a lot of dynamics within the album of course. Live what we’re doing with this material, at least to me, is extraordinarily invigorating.”

And intense, by the sound of it. “Intense is the only way I can put it,” he agrees. “Overwhelming, utterly overwhelming. We’re rehearsing in a very small, bright room so it’s incredibly loud and really difficult to take. But it’s great. Six people in a room making this huge sound, it’s pretty amazing. I sent them the acoustic versions of the songs, then gathered them all together in the studio, and after a little pep-talk on each song from me we’d just start playing. We played each song for approximately 12 hours. By that time it reached an openness and had the personality of each player on it, and it had expanded, and at that moment we recorded.”

That orchestral sound he mentions is definitely prevalent on the new album: one can detect the influence of the more frenzied, outr pieces by contemporary classical composers like Krzystof Penderecki in the rattling, haunted house outro of You Fucking People Make Me Sick or the atonal avalanches of noise that crop up in in No Words, No Thoughts or Inside Madeline. “Sure, I love all that and I love (Polish composer) Henryk Górecki too. He’s most famous for his third symphony, but the second symphony is utterly overwhelming, just incredible… lots of bashing, crashing Eastern European horror. I like Gyorgy Liget as well. Anything that ends up being sort of sculpted sound is what I gravitate towards.”

“There are a few very very rich people, incredibly right wing, who just want to get rid of all social services and to bankrupt the government so it goes back to this unbridled capitalism of the early 1900s…” – Michael Gira

With those influences in mind, one wonders if Gira himself has ever thought about composing orchestral music. “I think in my days of hubris I might have entertained such an idea… in the days when I thought I was invincible and could do anything. But now… no, that would be really pompous of me. I do like working with sound and I have an instinct when I get into the studio of how to build one thing upon another, how to take disparate elements and combine them into something that’s compelling. But as far as actually composing I wouldn’t have the slightest idea of how to do that.”

But he has dabbled in purely instrumental, non-vocal, non rock-orientated music before. Recording as The Body Lovers (and then as The Body Haters) he produced two albums of drifting, almost formless washes of sound in the late ’90s. The idea of producing more of this looped, ambient music still interests him. “There’s a special edition of the album that’s going to be available on tour and on the website that’s going to be a double CD, and the second CD is going to be exactly that kind of thing. I took some of the sounds on the record, some of the grooves, and just made this one 47-minute minute long piece of music out of it. I think it’s really great, it was really exciting for me to do. In a way I like it more than the actual album,” he chuckles.

This interest in reworking the material of his music into different forms extends to the band’s live interpretations of both the new album and some of the older material as well. “Coming to do the songs live, some of the rhythms have changed, the length of certain sections, the orchestrations, the way we approached it. It’s sounding more intense. For instance the song Eden Prison, which is pretty loud and intense on the record, I liked it when we’ve been playing it in rehearsal just now over the last few days, but it kind of gnawed on me that it was too ‘rock’ or something to play live, so we made the whole thing except the middle section kind of modal and open and quiet, so it’s like this trancing pulse and my vocal carries on over it. Then the middle section comes in even more intensely than it does on the record and that goes on forever. It’s just finding the essence of the song in order to play it live, you know? A lot of the other songs are even more intense and compulsive live than they are on the record. We’re doing some earlier Swans material as well, which is completely transformed also. The earlier stuff: A lot from Cop, Greed, stuff like I Crawled, Your Property, Beautiful Child and Sex God Sex from Children of God.”

So it really is a reformation of the band? It’s not just a conceptual thing? “It’s a new entity called Swans,” he laughs. “We’re playing the older songs but not how they were, we’re completely changing them. It’s material that’s available to use.” Despite the fact that he’s playing some of the earlier material, there won’t be any recreation of Gira’s infamously confrontational, semi-naked early stage performances, which he plays down self-mockingly. “I never really dived into the audience, but I certainly won’t be taking my shirt off. I think I’ll spare everyone that particular ordeal. We’ll just concentrate on the music this time around, it’s intense enough as it is.”

Gira seems to be comfortable with the notion of this being a reconstitution, than a reformation, of Swans. “That’s a good word for it. ‘Reconstitution’ fits,” He laughs. With that in mind then, where is his former partner, Jarboe, the visionary multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who was, for the last decade of Swans’ existence pretty much the other half of the band? Did he ask her to return to the fold? He pauses. “It just never even entered my mind. I was surprised when people began asking me that, I was like ‘Oh!’ (chuckles). We haven’t really been in touch and I just felt instinctively that to involve her would be very nostalgic and like an oldies tour, you know ? ‘Getting the old band back together’ sort of thing. It wouldn’t have made any sense. I have tremendous respect for her and will always love her. But for us to get involved again is just not possible.”

Detecting perhaps that this is a line of enquiry it would be prudent not to pursue, we move on to talk about the current music scene. Apart from the bands on his record label Young God (first home of Devendra Banhart, who sings on the new album, as well as the current residence of James Blackshaw, Lisa Germano, Akron/Family and others), who are the artists he admires currently? Are there any current artists that he feels a kinship with or whom he sees that he’s had an influence on? “Not really that I feel an influence on, no, I hate it when I get asked this question because then I remember some current act I’ve enjoyed after it’s too late, after the interview. There’s this band right now in Brooklyn which is pretty tremendous, I guess they’d call them a black metal band, they’re called Liturgy, have you heard of them? They’re absolutely incredible, the guy that plays with them (guitarist Hunter Hunt-Hendrix), his right hand is like, superhuman, it’s this really fast picking, you know? These amazing hovering patterns from two guitars: not like chords, you know? Picking out the notes really fast, like little circular lines that build and build with this loose drumming underneath it. It’s utterly mesmerising, utterly beautiful music… Of course the singing is more howling than singing. It’s kind of funny. It’s more like signpost singing; you don’t really understand the words. But the music is really amazing. That I’ve enjoyed.”

Much like Swans, it sounds like very physical music, a very physical presence. “Yeah, it sounds almost spiritual in a way. I have to tell you, there is one artist that is on the label who I’m so in awe of as a songwriter is this fellow James Toth. Have you heard his band Wooden Wand before? He’s such a great songwriter, he’s up there with the greats in my mind. He’s just in his early 30s or late 20s, and he writes these songs about down and out people that are not in the least bit hackneyed or corny: they have this black humour to them that’s really rare.” Does Gira find that he tends to respond to things that have a lack of sentimentality to them like that? “All music is sort of sentimental in a way. I like certain kinds of ‘sentimental’. I mean I love Willie Nelson, he’s a fantastic songwriter, he’s as good if not better than Bob Dylan as far as I’m concerned.”

Conversation turns to literature. In 1995 Henry Rollins‘ 2.13.61 book imprint published The Consumer, a collection of Gira’s short stories, prose poems and lyrics. As one would expect, it’s a harsh read, plunging the spectator into all sorts of abjection, horror and disgust, but as with all Gira’s works there is a purity and great beauty at its core. Would he be willing to take the journey into literature again? “I guess within the next decade, I’m hoping to be able to spend my time just reading and writing. Since I terminated Swans in the late ’90s I’ve been so busy producing other peoples’ music, making my own music, touring, running the record label, all that kind of stuff, to even pretend to have time to write requires solitude, and also requires reading, and I barely have time to read. Which is a huge loss, that’s just how it is.”

“To even pretend to have time to write requires solitude, and also requires reading, and I barely have time to read…” – Michael Gira

He confesses that writing requires a distinct set of circumstances in order to happen. “Yeah, I can’t just do it in the van. For me anyway, it just takes intense concentration and solitude. That goes for lyric-writing too, however the undertaking isn’t as complex or as lengthy. Also, one reason for not continuing (with the prose and short stories), I find that horrible place I went to mentally to write that book unappealing,” he laughs. “It’s not a place I want to go again. I need a new muse or something for writing prose. It’s a challenge but I don’t particularly want to revisit that person who wrote that.” Would a new literary project be very different from The Consumer then? “You only find that out within the process of doing it. That moment has not arrived. I hope it does at some point.”

This question leads him to reflect on his earlier work and his younger self, and his artistic legacy. This word gives him pause. “I think ‘legacy’ is a very weighty word to apply to it, but as for the work some of its excellent. I don’t sit down and listen to it of course, that would be quite foolish, but if I put it on once in a while a lot of it holds up. Some of it is excruciatingly embarrassing to me, but, you know, that’s what I did, and its almost like I’ve come to realise that making music is to me really more about the process than the final product. Looking at the songs as raw material to make something else happen, to me that’s what captures the imagination and keeps yourself alive. To me it’s almost like taking LSD once I start working on a song that’s building and growing my mind just starts exploding, I love it. And then when its done, it’s just like rotten old steak sitting on a plate… Sometimes it makes you want to cry because it’s a marker in time. As one grows older you lament the passage of time, because the end is getting closer all the time and you can’t sentimentalise the past, because the past is just as horrible as the present. But it’s poignant you know, sometimes to listen back to it.”

As a marker in time of the present day, it would seem that My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky sees today’s Gira gazing at the world once again with a heavy heart. There’s one striking repeated line on No Words No Thoughts, the album’s wall-of-noise opening track: “To think is a sin.” Is that a political comment on the world we live in currently? He seems surprised by this assumption. “Oh. No, it was not a political comment.” he laughs. “Those lyrics for that song were really difficult to write because the music, when I wrote the song, didn’t have any words. I wrote it on acoustic guitar as just a concept for a Swans song, you know, a song that was specifically written for Swans and I had a concept in mind then we recorded it, and I still had no lyrics for it, and I came up with some words. It was so hard because the music was so vast and to place words on it made it seem small, so I had to find words that were open and didn’t intrude. I certainly couldn’t tell a narrative or anything that would hold it down. So I came up with a series of phrases that were just options.”

Does he follow politics or current events very closely? “Of course I do, and I’m appalled at what’s happening in America, at what’s going to happen especially. The increasing control of corporations in American politics, control of the media and how effective they are at manipulating peoples’ world views, their political thinking. It’s amazing; they get huge segments of the public to vote against their own interests by using these false hot button issues. It’s really nefarious and very ominous. There are a few very very rich people, incredibly right wing, who just want to get rid of all social services and to bankrupt the government so it goes back to this unbridled capitalism of the early 1900s, no environmental regulation, no health care, no social security, none of that, they want to go back, no public schools” – throaty chuckle – “the state would just be the police, basically. What’s happened is that corporations and money have successfully colonised people’s minds with mass media, and that’s been going on since the ’50s. It’s getting worse and worse, and it’s just really working, this stuff, the whole consumer society. It’s a very deliberately created entity, it’s not something that happened by accident.”

“We played each song for approximately 12 hours. By that time it reached an openness and had the personality of each player on it, and it had expanded, and at that moment we recorded.” – Michael Gira

Beyond the tour, what are his next plans; are there any further collaborations in the offing? “No. By working on the music so extensively, I’m getting ideas for the next Swans album, so that’ll be the next thing. I may tour solo for a bit after that. And try to write songs, and continue running the record label in a very limited way. It’s certainly not remunerative, so…”

With the way music distribution is changing, maybe he could look at new models of presenting music, within the whole new download culture? But this idea doesn’t seem to enthuse him. “I’m just trying to survive; I don’t know, it’s just like a drowning person trying to keep from drowning, that’s how the record industry is right now. Trying to figure out how to survive when people don’t buy what you sell, so I don’t know. That’s a whole other discussion I don’t really want to get into. I’m just looking forward to this tour very much, so I just hope I don’t collapse physically, so we’ll see.”

With another throaty chuckle and a polite farewell, he’s gone. At 56 there seems to be no let-up in his passion for music, and his passion for doing things the way he needs them to be done. In his various guises, Michael Gira has taken his listeners to some fascinating places, not all of them pleasant or comfortable, but all emerging from a singular vision that is as compelling as the paintings of Francis Bacon: just as grotesque, just as beautiful. It’s heartening to speak to someone who could be resting on his laurels as an elder statesman of alternative rock, but who still feels the need to challenge and confront himself and his audience. This is not about nostalgia. Long may he live.

Swans’ album My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky is out now through Young God.

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More on Swans
Swans – The Beggar
Swans – Children Of God
Swans – Leaving Meaning
Swans @ Electric Brixton, London
Swans – To Be Kind